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Pastor Eric Deibler
- Isaiah 9:2-7
- Psalm 96
- Titus 2:11-14
- Luke 2:1-20
Sometimes I feel like we give the Christmas short shrift. We know the story, because we’ve heard it so many times. In fact, we’ve heard it so often that we tend to experience the auditory equivalent of what I call “refrigerator blindness”. You know, when you go to the refrigerator to look for something that you know is there, but for the life of you, you can’t seem to find it. (By the way, I think this affliction has a genetic component to it, because men seem to suffer from it much more so than women.) Of course, it’s not that the thing you’re looking for isn’t there. It’s just that you’ve seen the inside of the fridge so many times, that you’re no longer really looking. You see your idea of “the inside of the fridge”, but you’re not seeing any detail. We do the same thing, in general, with spaces with which we’re familiar on a day-to-day basis: the kitchen, the dining room, the living room. We’re so accustomed to them, that we don’t even really notice the details anymore, let alone when something has changed.
Consciously, or not, we do the same thing with the Christmas story. We’ve heard it so many times, that we stop really listening to it. Our ears prick up at the moment of our personal touchstones (no room at the inn, the shepherds in the field, the angels announcing the birth of Jesus, etc., etc., etc.), but otherwise the story just sort of washes over us. In a certain way, because we’re so inundated with information on a 24/7 basis, it becomes just a part of the flood of information and media noise. When you’re inundated by a flood, it’s hard to pick out the important things that are flying past you in the streaming cacophonous din of shouting voices and bright shiny objects that demand our attention on a constant basis.
At first blush, the story of Jesus’ birth almost seems to be a bit of an anti-climax. I mean think about it: So many miraculous things have already happened in Luke’s story of Jesus.
An angel appears to Zechariah in the temple and foretells the birth of his son John, who will be Jesus’ cousin, and who eventually is revealed to be John the Baptizer. Zechariah is incredulous because he and his wife, Elizabeth, are already old and, as a result of his incredulity, Zechariah is struck speechless until after John’s birth.
Then an angel appears to Mary and announces to her that, even though she’s not yet married, she will become pregnant by the power of God’s spirit. Then Mary, not wanting to bring shame to her family, being an unwed mother, goes and visits her cousin Elizabeth. And when she greets Elizabeth, the as-yet-to-be-born future John the Baptizer, leaps with joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. And Mary spontaneously breaks out in song, producing some of the most powerful poetry in the entire Bible.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
We get a fairly detailed accounting of the circumstances surround the birth of John the Baptizer and the poem of Zechariah’s song… But the birth of Jesus? It’s just one little sentence: “7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
It would seem that Gospel of Luke itself mirrors our hearing of this story. There’s just so much going on before we even get to the story of Jesus birth and when we do? If we’re not careful we tear right on through it before we even realize it. Especially when the story we celebrate is one that happens in such a small way. In such a quiet way.
So, in order to help you hear this story with new ears, I will be reading from a different translation called “The Message”.
1 About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. 2 This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. 4 So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. 5 He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.
8 There were sheepherders camping in the neighborhood. They had set night watches over their sheep. 9 Suddenly, God’s angel stood among them and God’s glory blazed around them. They were terrified. 10 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here to announce a great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: 11 A Savior has just been born in David’s town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. 12 This is what you’re to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.”
13 At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God’s praises:
14 Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth who please him.
15 As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. “Let’s get over to Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.” 16 They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17 Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. 18 All who heard the sheepherders were impressed.
19 Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. 20 The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen. It turned out exactly the way they’d been told!
For a story about events that are about to change the world, it seems to start on the right note. It references the Emperor Augustus and the Governor Quirinius! These are appropriate subjects for a dramatic narrative! But an unwed teenage mother whose fiancée doesn’t have enough pull in his hometown to get them even a lousy room somewhere for the night?
We’ve heard this story so many times, we think we know it so well, that we’ve forgotten just how audacious, if not downright outlandish, Luke’s claim is. We miss the irony of setting a newborn beside an emperor, as if the two could possibly have anything to do with one another. We lose sight of the absolute, even absurd vulnerability of Mary and her child. Yet it’s that very vulnerability that speaks to us. Because, unspoken or not, we’ve all experienced vulnerability.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve not had much experience with anything miraculous. I’ve never seen any of the small-scale miracle like turning water into wine. And I’ve never seen the big stuff like the resurrection. But the vulnerability of a newborn? That’s something I can understand: The fear, the hope, the worry, the dreams, the anxiety bundled together in the heart of his mother? That’s something I know in spades. Three times over, for that matter, because I’ve got three kids!
It’s not a big step to make. It’s really more of a lateral shift. Honestly, how different is the anxiety one feels as the parent of a newborn from the trepidation we might have about a still beleaguered economy or a faltering relationship? How many of us come here tonight overshadowed by illness or filled with foreboding about the safety of a loved one serving abroad? How many of us come here weighed down by caring for an elderly parent or disabled child?
The simple truth of the matter is that each and every of us, has been indelibly marked by the everyday hardships of our lives. So, it’s easy to identify with the sheer frailty of the unlikely lead characters in Luke’s story. We feel for them because it’s so easy to see ourselves in them. Which makes it all the more surprising, humbling, and encouraging to hear the promise that God is at work through them for us.
The promise of Christmas in a nutshell is this: God chooses to dwell not with the high and mighty, but with the lowly; the unexpected; those considered “nothing” by this world. Amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God’s intention for humankind fully known. John writes that, “God is love”. And Luke shows us what that looks like. God takes on human form. The infinite becomes finite. And that which is imperishable becomes perishable.
The genius of Luke’s story, of course, is that he portrays all this through the simple, sympathetic, and even everyday characters of a young mother and common shepherds. So, if God can work in and through such ordinary characters, we must realize that God can also work in and through us. The true power of this story is the idea that it’s not just human flesh “in general” that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh. It’s not simply history “in general” that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed. This long-ago story of the birth of Jesus is not only about angels and shepherds, a mother and her newborn. It is also about us: gathered amid the candles and readings, carols and prayers. God came at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives. That is why we gather.
As God entered into time and history so long ago through, Jesus, whom the Gospel of John calls “the Word made flesh” so, too, does God enter our lives. God chooses to enter into our humanity, in all of its fullness and failings, its power and pain, its joys and sorrows. This is what we call the incarnation: The enfleshment of God. As such, it’s not only a revelation of God, it is also a revelation of who we are. God’s decision to become human means that our humanity matters. In God’s commitment to our bodies we recognize that our bodies matter. God’s determination to be known in the flesh means that doing ministry in the flesh matters. That’s what it means when we, as the church, call ourselves “The Body of Christ”.
As we gather here, we recognize that we don’t have our lives together as we should, or even as we’d like. We come with a mix of hopes and fears, moments of faith and moments of failing. We come with very little to boast about, if we’re being honest with ourselves, and even more to confess. We come as those who have no more right to expect God’s attention, let alone God’s favor, than Mary and the shepherds and all those who hear the Christmas story. We gather as those who should not expect God’s attention, but we leave as those who recognize, with surprise, confusion, and maybe even a bit of fear, that we are also those whom God has addressed, called, honored, and elevated. We are God’s own beloved children, and the whole of the Christmas story – and indeed, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – is intended to assure us of God’s love and presence that we might turn and share that good news with others. AMEN